Thursday, October 22, 2015

Porcupine Mountains 2015, Day 4: Big Carp to Section 17

Last time: Rest day and waterfalling along the Big Carp RiverHere is a list of all of my backpacking trips.

A mist in the distance

I woke suddenly in that dark hour just before the first light of dawn appears. I was awakened by the lack of sound: The rain had stopped.

All night I had tossed and turned, always waking to hear the rain pelting on Lake Superior Cabin's metal roof. I couldn't shake the feeling that yesterday -- a beautiful and perfect day -- was our last chance to hike the 8+ miles out of the park in good weather. Now it seemed that the downpour had stopped -- a true blessing. I rolled over and finally got to sleep.

Just before we started our trip, rain was a possibility in the forecast, but only for half of a day at most. We were more or less prepared for it. We packed good rain coats and pack covers, although we left rain pants home to lighten the load a bit (on the theory that Porkies trails are relatively underbrush-free, so pants would only be useful in the most torrential downpour).

About an hour after sunrise, we were drinking tea and eating oatmeal to the beach, where we sat on a driftwood log and enjoyed the beautiful morning.  The sky was bright blue with a few puffy clouds, but the lake surf was still running high and the wind was blowing hard.

The distant points of land along the coastline to the west were surprisingly hazy. As we squinted at them, the wind suddenly became downright cold, and a thick fog started to roll in. Within 10 minutes  the blue sky had completely disappeared under a thick bank of fog, and a cold mist reduced visibility to just yards. A thin but cold rain started to fall. We dashed for the cabin, confused and disheartened. Just when the day looked perfect for hiking, would we be chased away by yet another round of rain?

Today's unavoidable 7.3 mile hike to Section 17 cabin would be almost entirely along the Little Carp River. Our trail would take us directly in the direction from which the weather had come. Would that let us get out of the weather faster, or just ensure our misery? We reviewed our options:
  • Option 1: Wait for a while and hope that the weather cleared. 7.3 miles would take us 3-ish hours, so we were in no hurry to leave. We could bide our time and see.
  • Option 2: Change our plans and take the Cross Trail, a little-used trail that started right by our cabin. This would reduce our mileage to about 5 miles, giving us less time out in the rain, while still leading directly to the Section 17 cabin. However, the Cross Trail is universally described as "swampy in the best circumstances, and impassable in the worst". That didn't sound like fun, especially after repeated rains.
  • Option 3: Exit the Porkies entirely. If we were willing to brave the rain, we could make it to our car in just over 8 miles and have a hot shower tonight. Much to my shame, that option sounded best to me.
After much debate (and a feeling that leaving early would be the worst possible outcome), we decided on Option 1. After all, the wall of clouds and rain had appeared almost out of nowhere -- it could disappear just as quickly.

To pass the time, we packed and repacked our packs, making sure we were ready to go on a moment's notice. When that stopped being a reasonable pastime, Sarah started stitching and I wrote in the cabin's log book. The log book is a fun feature of the cabins -- a little link between all of the other lucky souls who stayed in the cabin. We usually left logs that were short and to the point, but without anything better to do I wrote a very long entry filled with advice for future campers. My main point addressed a disturbing trend in previous entries: Refusal to eat thimbleberries, because they were mysterious "red berries".

Red berries get a bad rap. The vast majority of bright red berries in Michigan are perfectly safe: Strawberries, raspberries, thimbleberries, bunchberries, wild cherries, wild cranberries, wintergreen, and of course thimbleberries.  Get back here! Don't go around eating unknown wild plants just because some blog told you it was OK! Thimbleberries look just like overgrown raspberries -- anyone being overly cautious around them is missing out on a delicious treat.

I wrote at length about the uses of thimbleberries, how to make jam, and then wandered off to topics like the mouse-stopping board and why it's worth going up the Big Carp to see waterfalls. I passed a very pleasant half hour writing advice that future campers will probably ignore completely. But, it passed the time.

Technically called "God Light". For obvious reasons.

Every 10 or 15 minutes, I put on my rain coat and dashed out to the Big Carp bridge to get a broad look at the sky. At long last, on one of these trips, I could see blue sky off to the south! As I waited, the rain stopped just as quickly as it started, the wind warmed, and rays of sunlight started to poke through the clouds. Sure enough, a faint rainbow appeared to the north.

A group staying in the Big Carp 6 bunk, across the river, chose that moment to make their move. A large group of kids of various ages with two parents headed out en masse, marching past me on the bridge. The man who I assume was their father stopped to chat. He gave his two cents that the weather would hold, and that we should make our move right now as well. I paused just long enough to take a photo of the beautiful light before running back to the cabin with all of this good news.

At 11 am, we finally shouldered our packs, locked up, and headed out on the last long leg of our trip. There was a clear blue sky overhead and a downright warm breeze blowing from the south. Our raincoats were ready to be used at a moment's notice.

For the first segment of today's hike, we backtracked along 1 mile of Lake Superior Trail between the Big and Little Carp rivers. The first time we went over this segment, we were pleasantly surprised at the dryness of the trail. Today, my boots started to sink in the muck before we were even out of sight of the cabin. Three nights of rain were too much for the Lake Superior Trail: It had converted back to its soggy, muddy, boot-suckingly soft old ways.

It seemed like everyone had decided to make a run for it at the same time, so we found ourselves frequently stepping off into the wet bushes to let another group by. We even met the woman and doggie from our 2nd day, apparently retracing their route along the Lake Superior Trail.

Lunch on the Little Carp River bridge (looking south)

Despite the muddy trail, we made good time to the Little Carp River. We stopped at the big bridge over the river and enjoyed a lunch of rice cakes and peanut butter. The sun shone so brightly on the water that we had to avert our eyes, and photos were almost impossible. It was, if anything, humid and hot, a big change from the rest of the trip.

From here on out, we were on new trails. The Little Carp River starts at its junction with the Lake Superior Trail and heads southeast, never more than a few yards from the Little Carp River. It passes close to a trailhead at the southern edge of the park, then turns northeast and then turns in towards the heart of the park, ending at Mirror Lake. Widely acknowledged as one of the most beautiful trails in an already gorgeous park, the northwest end of the Little Carp River trail also picks up the North Country Trail and carries it for many miles.

The Little Carp river is very much like the Big Carp, but smaller, so I suppose it's well named. It was filled with tiny waterfalls and rapids, all of them ridiculously scenic and framed by the huge trees on either bank. The trail wandered through dark stands of old-growth hemlock and danced around the edges of huge thimbleberry patches, all with the bubbling river within ear-shot and eye-sight.

Walking along the Little Carp River trail

Our first landmark after the bridge was Traders Falls. A small wooden sign pointed us towards an informal campsite along the edge of the river, where the water bubbled along between small rocks. We walked out onto the river -- literally, onto rocks in midstream, hardly even having to pause to look at our footing -- and paused. We turned our heads upstream, then downstream, then we looked at each other. There was no waterfall. The rocks we were standing on formed a tiny set of rapids, but hardly anything worth noticing.

My best guess is that Traders Falls was named not because it's a waterfall of any size, but rather because there was some old trader's cabin nearby, and that part of the river picked up the name by association. I didn't see any signs of a cabin, but it's the only theory I have.

Not long afterwards, we came to our first unbridged river crossing of the day. The trail crossed the river at a very shallow point, and we were able to walk across on small rocks without even needing to change into sandals. We then started down a section of the river that I nicknamed the "Tree Alley". This was a surprisingly straight section of river, filled with boulders, slides, and small rapids. There was a heavy canopy of trees that nearly formed a tunnel over the river. It was a classic wilderness view, and one that I was completely unsuccessful trying to capture with my camera. At the end of Tree Alley, we passed Trapper's falls, which is a long slide that is much more worthy of a name than that Trader business.

Shortly afterwards, we came to the second (and last) unbridged river crossing of the day. This one was just tough enough to force us to change into sandals for the crossing. That also gave us a good excuse to take a break. As we rested on the far bank, an unpleasantly familiar cool wind started to blow, and dark clouds began covering the sun. Just as it had done twice in the morning, the weather had again changed completely in less than 10 minutes.

Crossing the Little Carp

We jumped up to start moving, just as rain drops started to fall. Optimistically, we chose to believe that the rain was just passing through. In the dense Porkies forest, we could barely feel any sprinkles, so why not? Our optimism didn't last, however. The light rain became a little heavier, and a little steadier. Soon we could feel the rain even through the thick canopy. We managed to pull out our raincoats and quickly put them on just as the sky opened up and let out a true drenching downpour.

After that, the going was long, slow, and wet. Rain coats might keep rain off of you, but they also hold in heat and sweat (even the so-called "breathable" coats, which are the worst kind of false advertising -- the kind that soaks you in the backcountry!). We spent most of our time staring at the trail about 2 feet ahead of us and watching for slippery roots. Seeing that we were in the middle of an old-growth forest, there were a few of those around.

Along the way, we met the first hikers we had yet seen on the Little Carp River trail. This group had started at the Little Carp River road and was just beginning their backpacking trip towards the Big Carp. The group looked to be two older couples in shiny hiking gear and ponchos. One of them told us that the weather called for "scattered showers" for the rest of the day, and that things should clear soon. We wished them well, and slogged onwards.

The trail, previously rather flat and easy (at least by Porkies standards) became much steeper and hillier as we passed the miles. We were climbing into the central highlands of the park, where long, rounded hills and outcrops were the order of the day. The hills pushed the trail high above the river and, while beautiful and pine-covered, kept away the lovely river views from earlier in the day. In glimpses through the trees, we could see that the river had become sluggish and choked with brush and blowdowns. From high up on a ridge, we could see some fantastic campsites down at river level. An enormously steep hillside sat between the trail and the campsites. We never did find a spur trail leading to the sites.

The rain gradually slackened, until we were able to take our coats back off and walk through only a light mist.

Greenstone Falls

At long last, we passed the intersection with the Cross Trail and quickly found the spur to the Section 17 cabin, our final cabin of the trip. The Section 17 cabin is across the Little Carp River from everything else (including another palace-potty and a second cabin, Greenstone Falls). A narrow wooden bridge leads across the river to the cabin. This was good since we had absolutely no desire to cross the river yet again today, getting even more wet in the process.

The bridge crossed and the steep hill on the other side climbed, we found yet another remote and cute rustic cabin set in the middle of a flat rise high above the river. The cabin backed up against a steep bluff that rose suddenly behind it, and curved around to partly enclose it on the east side as well. Thick thimbleberries encroached on the west side, and the river (back to being made of small waterfalls) audibly fenced in its north side. This was a lovely, and well-guarded, location.

The skies cleared and sun shone down on us as we plopped our bags down on the cabin's picnic table and took stock. We were mostly dry -- the waterproofing on our coats and boots had held. Our packs were waterproof enough -- and we had packed almost everything in plastic bags anyhow. But we had strapped our sleeping pads on the outside of our bags and they were wet around the edges. We inflated them and set them out in the sun to dry, along with our river-crossing sandals.

Sarah had gotten chilled in the rain and needed a nap. She curled up in a sleeping bag on one of the cabin's bunk beds, and that's the last I heard from her for several hours. Once again, a long day of hiking into the Porkies' interior took its toll.

I did not suffer from the same exhaustion. This is the story of my hiking life: No matter how exhausted I am, I can't stay put for long. Taking advantage of the sun and perfect temperature, I set out to see what I could see. I started by climbing the bluff behind the cabin, which ran along the river and had yet another high bluff behind it. I found plenty of down firewood on the bluff, which I moved piece by piece into a pile in front of the cabin.

Rock in River. I probably spent 20 minutes setting up this shot and loved every minute of it.

My next stop was the river, with camera in hand. This stretch of the Little Carp River was once again rocky and rapid-y, in contrast with the slow and stagnant stretches around our last crossing. There were several named waterfalls nearby, including Greenstone Falls (which granted its name to the other cabin, directly across the river) and Overlooked Falls, although neither of these were particularly large. The river was as beautiful and rugged as I could have wished. I became completely engrossed in photographing the waterfalls, jumping from rock to rock in the stream, contorting myself into funny shapes to get just the right angle, cavorting across the bridge, and sitting motionless for minutes trying to capture a scene with just the right composition. It felt just like the good old days of waterfalling in the Copper Country. I completely lost track of time.

As I was focusing on the river, the sun disappeared, a thick wall of clouds obscured the sky, and... raindrops started falling on my head! The fell in what was most certainly not a wistful B. J. Thomas sort of way.

This sudden weather change (I think the 5th one, at this point) brought me rudely back to reality. I raced back up to the cabin and threw our pads and sandals into the cabin (waking Sarah up in the process) just as the sky again broke open and unleashed a steady downpour. Drenched again!

Last year, when we stayed "inland" at the Mirror Lake 2 Bunk cabin, we noticed how dark it was in the woods. Without Lake Superior taking up half of the horizon, there was little room for light to make it in through all of the trees. This was equally true at Section 17, and the rain and clouds made the darkness even worse. It was well before sunset, but we were completely stuck in the dark cabin, in the dark woods, under the dark sky.

We made freeze-dried Lasagna for dinner to warm ourselves up, and then followed it up with several rounds of hot tea for the same purpose. Afterwards, with a steady rain still falling, Sarah and I broke out the headlamps (both of whose batteries were quickly dying), cuddled up in sleeping bags, and settled in to read and/or stitch.

The steady rain never let up. As the dark night closed in over the woods and the cabin, we eventually nodded off to sleep.

The Day 4 trail is light blue and starts at the "Lk Superior" cabin. The orange spur is our waterfall trip on Day 3.

Miles hiked: 7.3
Total miles: 16.8

To be continued in Part 5: Out of the woods!

Thursday, October 1, 2015

Porcupine Mountains 2015, Day 3: Big Carp Waterfalls

Last time: Speaker's Cabin to Big CarpOr, see this list of all of my backpacking trips.

Sarah is tired of your artsy-fartsy photography. Time for BREAKFAST!

We awoke a little after sunrise to find the day cool, bright, and beautiful. The only sign of last night's rain was a heavy dew on the thimbleberries... and the fact that the laundry we had left hanging outside was completely soaked. We left it up to dry again in the beautiful morning sun.

We made our usual oatmeal and tea for breakfast. Around 8 am, according to my timestamps, Sarah got tired of me taking artsy photos of our steaming-hot tea and determined that only a photobomb would stop me. She was correct.

Today was our rest day, and we were determined to enjoy it to the max. We scheduled this break on our 3rd day precisely because by last year's 3rd day, we were exhausted and miserable and still hiking 8 miles uphill. Our plans were very simple:

Sit on the beach
Sit on the beach
Hike upstream to see waterfalls
Take bath under a waterfall
Take photos of waterfalls
Nap next to waterfalls
Take more photos of waterfalls    
Swim in Lake Superior
Take photos of stars
Swim under the stars

Sarah is a bit of a fish, if you haven't guessed.

But before any of that, we had to hike up Kilimanjaro. As with Speaker's Cabin, the Lake Superior Cabin's outhouse was way, way, way up a hill behind the cabin. This makes sense: It keeps any, uh, seepage from the outhouse far away from fresh water sources. This reasoning was not popular among the contrarians in the cabin's log book, who universally condemned the difficult climb (especially in the middle of the night). One even claimed to be an expert in soil engineering, which amused us quite a lot (however, that same person also condemned anyone who was wearing, eating, or sleeping in anything not 100% found in nature, so who knows what was going on with him).

Behold, Kilimanjaro of the Porkies!

I know what you're thinking: He's going on about the outhouse for another paragraph? Yes, yes I am. When you're backpacking for most of a week, your priorities change a little bit. Remember my detailed description of the Hiking Stench Cycle from Day 2? Ahem... back on point: Unlike Speaker's Cabin, the Lake Superior Cabin has a wonderful "composting" outhouse, a type becoming very popular in the Porkies. I waxed potty-etical about the one at Mirror Lake at length last year. Their main feature is that they hardly stink at all. Many of the older style outhouses in high-traffic areas of the Porkies backcountry are being replaced by these "palace potties," and all I can say is Hallelujah!

After a quick lunch, we lightly packed one backpack with water and snacks and headed upstream to see the waterfalls. The Big Carp River trail follows the river closely, although it frequently does so from the top of a high bluff. Luckily for us, most of the waterfalls are within easy reach of the trail.

As I've said many times about many Porkies rivers, the Big Carp River is practically made of waterfalls. The river drops about 200 feet in its last mile before the lake, so there's quite a bit to see. However, those 200 feet don't happen all at once. You can't walk 10 feet without a small drop, a slide, or at least some picturesque rapids, but there are very few large waterfalls.

Unnamed Waterfall #1

I had saved my camera batteries for this part of the adventure. More specifically, I had saved both of the batteries that I brought. Waterfalls look best when photographed with a slow shutter speed, which in turn means that the camera has to use more energy to collect light from the longer exposure. In short, photographing waterfalls destroys battery life. My camera can last for weeks taking normal photos, or about 3 hours taking waterfall photos. Luckily, 3 hours was enough for today.

Early on, we came across a long slide of a waterfall that was mostly bare rock due to the low late-summer water levels. I hopped around the rocks contorting myself into bizarre poses to get a good angle. Meanwhile, Sarah sat back on the warm rocks and read.

This is exactly how the Big Carp River looks for its first mile and a half, (usually) minus the Sarah.

As we continued upstream, we met with a huge variety of small drops, rapids and slides, all framed by gorgeous old-growth hemlocks in an open forest. I photographed them all, and some of the photos actually turned out. I've found over the years that the experience of viewing a waterfall can never be matched in a photo -- the movement of the water, the sound, the whisper of the breeze, the feeling of the sun are all impossible to capture. Nonetheless, I tried my darnedest, but my memories are dearer than the photos.

Along the way we met a steady stream of hikers -- far more than we had yet met in the trip. The Big Carp River trail is a major thoroughfare in the park, connecting to all of the most popular destinations: the mouth of the Big Carp; Mirror Lake, and Lake of the Clouds. Groups of 2's, 3's, and 4's with the occasional solo backpacker headed both ways along the trail as we stopped by waterfall after waterfall. I chatted with most of them, but many were in a hurry to get somewhere else. One mentioned that his weather radio indicated rain shows and possible thunderstorms tonight. Another was hurrying east, hoping to snag a prime campsite near a large waterfall.

We too were heading towards that waterfall, Shining Cloud falls, which is one of the largest drops in the park. It's the highlight of the lower Carp River, about 1.25 miles above the river mouth.

Unnamed Waterfall #1, another angle

When we hiked the Big Carp River trail on our 2014 adventure, we followed the exact route we were taking today. But on that hot day, after two long muddy slogs on the previous days, we were exhausted and uninterested in the waterfalls. Even one of the biggest waterfalls around wasn't enough to get us to stop -- and I didn't take any photos along the river. So our trip today was all about making up for last year's missed opportunities. Practically none of the trail looked familiar, a sign of just how exhausted I had been last time around.

The way up to Shining Cloud seemed to stretch on for a remarkably long time. Meanwhile, any two hikers trying to count waterfalls would easily come up with two different double-digit numbers on just this one stretch of river.

We eventually started to think that we might have missed Shining Cloud falls entirely. Or maybe we had just seen Bathtub falls -- the one other named drop on this river. We couldn't exactly remember. There were enough larger drops that perhaps one of them was Shining Cloud. Shortly afterwards, the trail headed up a high bluff away from the river. We decided to try bushwhacking along the river bank, but were quickly squeezed right to the edge of the river bank, which was suddenly sheer and rocky.

Unnamed slide close-up

Heading along the high river bluff instead, we could barely even see the river below. The trail climbed steadily, until it suddenly reached a high and open head of land with an overlook of a spectacular waterfall.  This had to be Shining Cloud Falls: There was no comparison with any other waterfall on the lower Big Carp -- a true high drop, not just a slide or rapids.

Scrubby growth below the overlook screened a full view of the falls, and the photo below only shows part of it. The pool below the waterfall looked huge, cool, and inviting.

I ran ahead to try to find a way down to river level. The trail continued to rise high above the river, but deep ravines started to cut down towards the river. The first one had an obvious volunteer trail heading straight down, and so I too headed straight down. The path had a dense covering of pine needles over sandy earth -- neither of which are known for being good for keeping your footing on a slope. After skittering around some large pines, the trail reached the edge of a steep drop-off, and turned to follow a narrow rocky ledge down towards the river. I took a couple of steps along the ledge, but there was no way I would be able to keep my footing and balance and carry a camera. Boo -- that trail led straight down to the big pool at the waterfall's base!

Just part of Shining Cloud falls

Repeating the mantra that "up-climbing is easier than down-climbing", I panted my way up the hillside and tried the next ravine over. This time a volunteer trail lead to a very nice flat area within about 20 vertical feet of the river. I took my one good photo of the waterfall from here (the one above), but as you can see, even this was only a partial view. The trail continued downward from the flat area, but again, I found myself on an impossible-to-follow rocky ledge. Perhaps if I felt more like doing some free-climbing, I could make it down to the river -- but not today. (Sarah, who was watching from high above at the lookout, later admitted that she expected to either see me hopping along the rocks at the waterfall's base or floating downstream.)

That's the point where I gave up on getting down to river level, and instead returned, panting and sweaty, to Sarah at the high overlook.

With no more big waterfalls above Shining Clouds, we turned around and headed back. Sarah hoofed it back to the potty-palace, while I took my time, chatted with fellow hikers, and tried photographing some of the trickier waterfalls a second time. The pleasantly sunny-but-cool day was perfect. It was a bit too cool to swim in any of the pools at the bases of the waterfalls, but we always had Superior.

An actual drop! ... but still unnamed

Indeed, when we were both back, Sarah was ready for yet another bath in Lake Superior. By this time, a cool breeze had sprung up and a few clouds were starting to roll in. This led to lake swells that were heavier than in previous days, so after splashing around a little I decided to sit on the shore and read. Sarah had a grand time, but eventually came in after nearly being swept off of the "sitting rock". Nonetheless, she had gone swimming in Lake Superior for 5 days in a row, certainly some sort of personal record.

Clouds started rolling in and added to the stiff lake breeze that chased us back to the cabin. Things were starting to look stormy.

We ate a quick freeze-dried dinner (Backpacker's Pantry Risotto -- totally acceptable, which is about the highest praise I can offer any freeze-dried meals -- and a nice break from our usual Mountain House options) and settled in for the night as the thick clouds brought on an early dusk.

The early dusk turned to early pitch-black night, and rain started to fall in huge drops. There would be no staring at a campfire, no sunset on the beach, and no stargazing tonight. Another wash for some of my favorite camping activities. Instead, we sat inside reading (or, if you're Sarah, cross-stitching) by the glow of our headlamps. I made several rounds of hot tea to chase away the chill.

Sarah stitching

Before going to bed, we took some time to set up our usual anti-mouse measures. If you want to have real fun in the backcountry, try leaving out anything edible (or even vaguely smelly) in a Porkies cabin. The resident mice are very familiar with human food, and they will chew straight through your bag and leave you with a huge mess.

According to the cabin log, the Lake Superior Cabin has an especially bad mouse problem. Past sufferers reported that the mice entered the cabin through a crack under the door and would go so far as to climb up our sleeping bags if we didn't prepare properly. Luckily, there seemed to be a consensus that the mice could be stopped by two simple measures: Proper food storage, and careful use of the mouse-stopping board.

Food storage is easy: Keep food bagged, in your pack, hung on the wall -- or else placed under heavy pots and pans. But, the Lake Superior Cabin's mouse-stopping board was a new one for us. Some past tenants had kindly left an inch thick board, carefully labeled with its name and a diagram of how to use it (edited by some later bored campers to say "mouse-stomping board" with a rather more gruesome illustration). We carefully slid the board into the corner of the door frame, blocking the small crack under the door, and added flat beach cobbles along the rest of the crack to discourage extra-adventuresome (or extra thin?) mice.

We never did have any mice problems, but the testimony of fellow campers convinced us that it was worth the effort to keep the place sealed up tight.

Eventually, we crawled in to our sleeping bags. I read a bit longer, and then turned over to sleep. The rain continued unabated outside. I lay awake, anxious about tomorrow's 7 mile hike, which we would likely have to do in this very rain. That naturally lead to thoughts about how this was our last night at the Big Carp. The Porkies are one of my favorite places in the UP, and last year the Big Carp became my favorite place in the Porkies. This year cemented it even more, and my heart ached a little just thinking about leaving this quiet and beautiful place. Even though we would still be in the woods for another night, I could feel that we were past the hump -- we were on the downswing of our backpacking adventure.

I tossed and turned, never able to sleep for more than a few minutes as I listened to the steady, heavy rain.

Miles hiked: 2.5
Total miles: 9.5

To be continued in Part 4: You call that a waterfall?